Christmas, Then Cancer

This is a week of contrasts. Yesterday, my toddler grandson, his parents and my ex brother-in-law sat in my living room opening presents, listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” My daughter, the baby and I went on a bracing walk in Riverside Park during which little Vince looked in wonder at the sunset shimmering on the Hudson, pointed upward at the sound of each plane overhead, yelled “DAW!!” as each dog went by and captivated passing pedestrians with his rosy cheeks and infectious joie de vivre. At one point, he just slowly turned around in circles, mouth agape, taking in the hugeness of the world, the smallness of his two- and a half foot self. Today I am sitting in the oncology treatment ward of Mt. Sinai Hospital with my husband, Dan. When we are here, time stops, there is no sunshine or sunset, no winter breeze off the river, no playfully yipping neighborhood canine. There is just the relentless beeping of IV machines, the ever-present glare of fluorescent lights, the smell of disinfectant soap, the rattle down the hallways of “vitals carts” bearing blood pressure cuffs and other paraphernalia. 

You might think that no one in their right mind would want to be here. You would be wrong. This is a place filled with hope, where no one gives up, where every minute is precious, where the pettiness of daily life fades in the face of potential mortality. This is a place where I forget about the threat to democracy that the Trump cabal represents, where I refrain from checking social media accounts for likes, retweets, follows, where I forgive myself for not being “productive.”

I am here as a witness, in the tradition of my Quaker faith. I am here to be present for my husband while he reclines, lips ajar, eyes closed as the drugs that we hope will keep him alive to see another Christmas go into his body. As I watch the drips descend from the bag dangling from the IV pole, I hope that each one represents another day, another week that I can be by his side. I am here as a witness to the lesson that we are all in this together. Cancer respects no ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, political party, immigration status, socio-economic category. The only tribalism in this ward is evidenced by the shared fierceness of hope.

This isn’t our first rodeo. We thought Dan would be in the 90 – 95% of patients with his type of cancer to be permanently in remission. This October we found out that after fifteen months his cancer had returned, this time metastasized in his lungs.

“This is an ominous result,” his oncologist, a world-famous doctor exclusively researching his type of cancer intoned as we sat on the living room couch, the iPhone on speaker.

“Why do you have to be so fucking special?” I whispered as I watched my stoic husband wipe a tear from his face.

“I’m so sorry,” he said after he hung up the phone. Always thinking of me, not himself. As if any of this were his fault. As if I  would rather be anywhere else, with anyone else.

The irony is not lost on me that my grandson is exactly the age in months as the interval between the end of Dan’s last treatment and this new diagnosis. My favorite Christmas present is a slim volume of photographs chronicling Vince’s life from his birth to mid-December. What a miracle this first year of life is! From totally dependent tiny creature to bipedal whirlwind, this little person is a force to be reckoned with. In the fifteen months that Dan was cancer free, reborn in a sense, our world grew larger, richer, too. After decades in the DC suburbs we moved to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, relished the many cultural opportunities of our new city, welcomed Vince, made many new friends, joined, or in Dan’s case, created a new social network.

As I wait for this round of immunotherapy to conclude I end 2019 in gratitude – for my family, my friends both new and old, and especially the talented, caring, innovative staff of the Mt. Sinai Tisch Cancer Center. I regret nothing. What’s the point of that? I look forward, resolute, hoping to stay present each day, come what may. Bring it, 2020.

14 thoughts on “Christmas, Then Cancer”

      1. Malcolm is a wonderful writer but he never was a scientist. He misunderstood the “10,000 hour” concept. Google it if you want an accurate explanation. His biases also hinder his exploration of Truth just like the rest of us. I have read all his books and listened to his podcasts, generally finding it all delightful. The podcast on the historic, very small, retroviral scientific community is pure joy to those of us who love the history of science. Your fellow gym rat.

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      2. I will look it up. I like his work, but also agree with your assessment of his biases. He can sometimes feel flip to me in his analysis of areas that are not his forte. But the again, as a generalist, he brings lots of interesting ideas to a mass audience. Gotta run . . . to the gym!

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  1. What you and your husband are going through is not easy. You make it “look” easy by focusing on hope, which is essential at times like these. But I know from personal experience that it IS not easy, that it’s complicated emotionally, that there are no regrets except for the great, big fat one that cancer has returned. I admire your courage and I love your writing and I hold you and your husband in my heart.

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